Fall Semester Decisions
08/10/2021, 01:00:01 PM
President Khator

Dear Faculty and Staff,

I hope you and your families are safe and healthy. The current resurgence of COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant has given rise to a new round of anxiety and concern, which is entirely understandable. To be honest, I feel the same way.

While I trust that we all will take personal responsibility to mitigate the risk of the COVID-19 spread as we open for Fall Semester on August 23, I also feel that some institutional decisions regarding vaccinations, masks, meetings, exemptions and course delivery are necessary to keep our community safe. I write to you today to present these decisions.  Further, I want to express my appreciation for your patience and flexibility as we plan to receive students in the midst of a rapidly changing and increasingly complex environment. As I present these steps, please also be assured that we are monitoring the situation on a daily basis and are ready to pivot, should the situation warrant it in the future.

Fall Classes: Seventy-eight percent of the fall classes are currently scheduled face-to-face. We understand and value the importance of in-person experience at the University of Houston but we also understand the anxiety felt by faculty and students regarding classroom density. The best way to find the right balance and address this challenge is to provide local flexibility.  Therefore, we are empowering faculty members to design a soft opening for their classes for the first two weeks as long as (1) the arrangement helps reduce density in the classroom, (2) all students have at least one in-class experience every week, and (3) covered material is easily available to students not present in the classroom. You have shown a remarkable ability to innovate during the course of this pandemic and I have no doubt that you can continue to do the same during this new challenging period.

Provost Short will follow up with more specific instructions in a letter.  She has reinstated the Instructional Format Committee that has so ably navigated us through various challenges during the past year.  Please direct specific questions and concerns about course delivery to her office.

We hope that this and other initiatives described below—vaccine incentives, the masking campaign, and frequent testing—will help create a safer environment for all of us.  In case there are concerns about air filtration, please note that all buildings—new and old—are now equipped with safe air filtration systems.  All buildings also have sanitization stations as well as strict cleaning protocols. 

Please also note that the UH COVID-19 Response Team will continue to monitor the situation and be prepared to respond with alternatives, should the situation warrant a different action.  I will continue to work with my Texas colleagues and state leaders to find strategies to help build a safer environment on campus.

COVID-19 Vaccination
The data suggests that vaccination remains the best intervention for reliable protection. If you have already been vaccinated, thank you. If you have not, I sincerely ask that you familiarize yourself with the pertinent information, consult with your doctor, and seriously consider being vaccinated. To emphasize its importance, we are launching the following three initiatives:

  1. To encourage faculty/staff vaccination:  We are launching the Cougar Vaccination Incentive Program (VIP) for the UH community on Wednesday, August 11.  Each participant will receive $50 in ShastaBUCKS, accessible through the Cougar Card for use at on-campus dining locations, the UH Campus Book Store, vending machines, and select off-campus merchants.  Participants will also be eligible for additional incentives including one of 10 free parking permits for the current academic year, 2021-22. Tomorrow you will be receiving a communication with more details on this incentive campaign from Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance Raymond Bartlett.
  2. To encourage student vaccination: A similar incentive program with free tuition and free parking permits is being launched for students to encourage vaccination.
  3. To make vaccination convenient: We will be holding a special vaccination clinic on campus August 16. In addition, we will promote other vaccination options  readily available across the city and state.

Face Coverings
According to the CDC, face coverings are an effective deterrent and it can help prevent infections. The University of Houston strongly encourages everyone - vaccinated or not - to wear face coverings in public indoor settings. To encourage people to wear a mask the University is launching a full-blown campaign this week. Signage has been printed and will be posted at the entrance to every building as well inside every classroom and lab. Our leaders in Student Government, Faculty Senate and Staff Council are committed to assisting us in this campaign.

COVID-19 Testing
As another layer of protection, we are asking that unvaccinated people get tested at least once a week. If you are vaccinated but have concerns or show possible symptoms, we encourage you to get tested as well. To make it easy and convenient, we are offering free testing on campus. Additional free testing resources in Houston may be found on the Houston Emergency Operation Center COVID-19 Testing page. Last year, students liked the reward of $2 per test added to their Shasta card. The program will be available to all students, staff and faculty this semester.

Reporting Guidelines
Transparency of data and information about infection is critical in combating COVID-19 spread. We ask that anyone testing positive should follow the University guidelines and inform the UH COVID Coordinator immediately. All reported incidences of COVID-19 are confidentially handled by the coordinator, but they are essential in our effort to provide necessary cleaning and contact tracing when appropriate. They are also essential in sharing aggregate data with the campus community.

Indoor and Outdoor Events
Campus events—indoor and outdoor—should follow published University event guidelines. These protocols were updated on August 1 to ensure the safety and well-being of participants. 

Work Accommodation: We understand that some faculty and staff may have health conditions that make them vulnerable in high-density settings.  Please know that exemptions are available through the university’s established process. Please visit the COVID-19 page or the HR page for any such exemptions.  Talk to your supervisor should you need a temporary accommodation. If participants are concerned about gathering in a room, it is totally appropriate to conduct faculty and staff meetings virtually.        

Finally, our Commencement Ceremonies for our Class of 2020 remain scheduled as planned on August 11, 12, 13 and 14 at the Fertitta Center. Be assured that the University has focused its energies on arranging this important event for our graduates, their families and our faculty and staff in a way that supports the safety of everyone in attendance. Masks will be provided on site and messaging on the importance of wearing masks will be conveyed through signage. Please know that only a third of the graduates have registered to walk and given the public health situation today, a smaller percentage may eventually participate.

I remain cautious yet optimistic that if we all work together and take personal responsibility, we can successfully navigate these difficult times. My cabinet and I remain committed to providing a safe learning and working environment on campus. If you have questions or ideas, I am always available. During these unprecedented times, I can take all the help I can get.
I look forward to seeing you around the campus. Meanwhile, please stay safe and healthy.  

With warm regards,
Renu Khator

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